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Working as a Believer

Law Enforcement and The Difference Between Killing and Murdering

Law Enforcement And The Difference Between Killing And Murdering
Image Credit: Skitterphoto from Pexels

I occasionally present a talk on the nature of truth, and as part of this presentation, I discuss the existence of objective moral truth claims. I often ask my attendees if it is ever “OK” to kill someone. Every group typically contains a large number of people who believe the Christian worldview condemns the use of deadly force unilaterally. But the Scripture delineates a distinction between killing and murdering.  “You shall not kill” is actually not a command found in the Ten Commandments. The command from scripture in the original language actually says “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). The Hebrew word for “murder” literally means “the intentional, premeditated killing of another person with malice.”

Interestingly, most of us are familiar with this definition of murder, because it is reflected in the Penal Codes of our country. In my home state of California, the Penal Code provides this definition of murder:

187. (a) Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought.

Malice is a form of evil intent that separates “murder” from “killing”. Even today there are acceptable forms of killing that lack this kind of evil intent, and these forms of killing exist as exceptions in the murder laws of the United States. In California, for example, a homicide is justified (according to Penal Code sections 187, 196 and 197) if one of the following conditions is met:

A person kills someone accidentally
A person is trying to defend him or herself and prevent his or her own murder (self-defense)
A person is trying to prevent someone from entering his or her house to commit some violent felony
A person is trying to prevent the murder of someone else (protecting an innocent)

In all these situations, killing is actually legal and justifiable, and exceptions of this nature exist in the Penal Codes of every state in America. Even those who don’t accept the existence of God or the authority of the Bible recognize the necessity for laws like these; laws that allow for deadly force to be used to accomplish some greater good. Killing becomes murder when (and only when) it is not properly justified, and the justifications are clear Click To Tweet

It’s interesting to note, however, these exceptions are not the invention of modern humans; they are simply a reflection of ancient Biblical Law. The Bible is the source for these modern laws and the exceptions come straight from the pages of scripture:

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An accidental killing is not murder:

Exodus 21:12-13
Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death. However, if he does not do it intentionally, but God lets it happen, he is to flee to a place I will designate.

Numbers 35:22-25
But if without hostility someone suddenly shoves another or throws something at him unintentionally or, without seeing him, drops a stone on him that could kill him, and he dies, then since he was not his enemy and he did not intend to harm him, the assembly must judge between him and the avenger of blood according to these regulations. The assembly must protect the one accused of murder from the avenger of blood and send him back to the city of refuge to which he fled.

A killing performed in self-defense (or in defense of one’s home) is not murder:

Exodus 22:2
If a thief is caught breaking in and is struck so that he dies, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed

A killing performed in an attempt to save the life of an innocent person is not murder:

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Exodus 2:11-12
One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. Glancing this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. (God did not judge Moses as a murderer because he was protecting the life of the slave)

Genesis 14:14-16
When Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he called out the 318 trained men born in his household and went in pursuit as far as Dan. During the night Abram divided his men to attack them and he routed them, pursuing them as far as Hobah, north of Damascus. He recovered all the goods and brought back his relative Lot and his possessions, together with the women and the other people. (God did not judge Abram as a murderer because he was protecting the life of Lot)

Killing becomes murder when (and only when) it is not properly justified, and the justifications are clear: you can use whatever force necessary to protect your own life from a hostile aggressor, or to save the life of an innocent from such imminent, life-threatening danger. The difference between the legal or illegal use of deadly force is really a matter of motive, intent and justification, and these distinctions come straight from the pages of Scripture.

Written By

J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured cold-case homicide detective, popular national speaker and best-selling author. He continues to consult on cold-case investigations while serving as a Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He is also an Adj. Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, and a faculty member at Summit Ministries. He holds a BA in Design (from CSULB), an MA in Architecture (from UCLA), and an MA in Theological Studies (from Gateway Seminary).

11 Comments

11 Comments

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  11. Liza

    February 22, 2021 at 9:08 am

    Thank you for this article. My family was reading Kings and my 12 year old was distraught and confused with the killings in the book. She did reference the 10 commandments. I did my best to answer her but it led me to seek out more biblical understanding. Your article is great and I will let her read it and we will have another talk. This is a difficult topic but one we do need to address. I believe it can be a stumbling block for many.

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